How to handle airline woes, from cancelations to refunds to lost bags

Here are tips to solve problems -- or avoid them in the first place

Josh Sorenson via Pexels | Used by permission

For nearly three years, airline travel has been a huge source of stress. We had understandable cancelations during the early months of the pandemic in 2020, when most people didn’t want to fly anyway. But getting those legally mandatory refunds was a major headache for many travelers.

Then in 2021, we saw airline schedules disrupted by staff shortages caused by buyouts, retirements and, sometimes, employees with COVID. Last year, Americans were ready to edge back to normalcy but the airlines weren’t, in many cases. Almost every major holiday or busy travel period saw massive cancellations and delays, even on perfectly calm, sunny days.

Most recently, Christmas weekend 2022 was a nightmare for millions of families who were expecting to get together for the holidays for the first time since 2019. A nasty winter storm, poor planning by many airlines and a meltdown by Southwest in particular led to many travelers spending the holiday weekend sleeping on the floor in airport terminals. Consumer advocates hope there’s a silver lining of that disastrous weekend: Reform in the works for years may finally become reality.

In August, the Department of Transportation proposed an industry overhaul including strengthening protections for consumers entitled to refunds. It also proposed new rights consumers would have if their domestic flights are delayed by three hours or more – the first time a “significant” delay has been defined. And the DOT launched a public database showing which airlines pay for hotels, food, etc., when flights are canceled or delayed.

Consumer advocates include PIRG have also recommended a host of new protections, including an industry-wide reciprocity requirement. Under our proposal, when a flight is significantly delayed or cancelled for any reason, passengers of that flight should be transferred to another airline if the second carrier has seats available and could get the travelers to their destination more quickly. The transfer would carry no additional charge to the passenger; the airline that canceled the flight would compensate the second carrier. This would help consumers and may prompt airlines to plan realistic flight schedules and stick to them.

While we’re waiting for those much-needed changes, here are links to things you should know and steps you can take:

Tips before you book that flight,  at the airport and if you have a problem.

Learn how to get a refund when the airline cancels your flight for any reason.

Understand how credits and vouchers work for the 10 largest airlines.

Know how to file a complaint with the DOT.


Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.

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